A hundred years ago today, global conflict descended as the First World War erupted. With Centrica’s origins in the 1812 Gas, Light and Coke Company (GLCC) from which the entire industry stemmed, our people played a vital role securing victory by fighting on the front line and fuelling Britain’s war effort at home. In mark of the centenary, we wanted to remember the remarkable lives of those who lived, fought, died and survived the First World War.
Bravely stepping up to serve Britain
The GLCC had a strong relationship with the Territorial Army so many employees were immediately called upon to serve their country, while a great many others eagerly volunteered in answer to Lord Kitchener’s call of duty. In 1914 for example, 90% of the Beckton Gas Works and over 50% of eligible apprentices in the Gas Sales Department had signed up to fight1. And by the end of the war, more than 5,000 employees had fought bravely to defend their country, of which around 60 received decorations for their service2. Overnight, employees were therefore plunged into a soldier’s life – lamp fitters become machine gun experts, clerks turned into captains of the Territorials while stokers morphed into platoon sergeants. The GLCC were supportive of their men and remarked, ‘Wherever they may be sent they will serve their country as they have served the Gas, Light and Coke Company – that is, to the best of their abilities’3.
Loss of life was inevitable but nevertheless deeply felt by all at the company. In October 1914, the GLCC announced its first casualty to be Mr K. Barclay, a clerk in the Store Department and a Private in the London Scottish (Territorial) Regiment4. Soon after, fatalities became more frequent and by the end of the war, 549 employees had made the ultimate sacrifice. In recognition of the brave and important contribution its people were making, the GLCC resolved that as far as possible, every man would have their job kept open for their return, men with dependents would receive an allowance and a War Distress Fund was created to benefit widows, dependents and workers unable to earn a living due to disablement.
Letter from the front
It is now two months since I left the Tar and Liquor Works, Beckton; but correspondence has been very irregular out here, and I have only just learned that The Gas, Light and Coke Company are making my wages up week by week to my wife. It gives me great relief and contentment of mind to know my wife and little ones are as well provided for as when I am at home. I think it is most generous of the Company, especially as there is such a large number of their men at the front and on home service, and I am writing, dear Sir, to ask you to favour me by conveying to the Directors my very best thanks and appreciation for their kind generosity. I trust it will not be too long, Sir, before I am again,
Your obedient Servant”
L Battery, R.H.A, British Expeditionary Force, 4October 1914
With the majority of male workers having volunteered or been conscripted, women plugged the growing shortage of labour which ensured Britain’s demand for fuel was met. The total number of women employed by the GLCC in 1918 totalled around 3,600, who undertook essential work from clerical or meter-reading roles to heavy-duty and often dangerous jobs maintaining gas production or handling chemicals. Women workers proved not only capable, but highly efficient workers with the GLCC stating they had, ‘obliterated all manner of ancient prejudices…setting up new standards of value’5 which proved they could play a strong role in the previously male-dominated workplace.
Our people also contributed to the war effort by supporting government with technical expertise. Employees were at times released to aid government projects while the Women’s Advisory Service, provided public demonstrations that taught both economies of gas and food which furthered the ambitions of departments like the Ministry of Food to help people cope with rationing.
In acknowledgement of increased work duties and the rising cost of living, the GLCC provided for as long as possible, a War Bonus and adjustment of wages for some employees. These efforts were appreciated by the workers and guarded against serious industrial action which ensured the service of national importance continued to operate efficiently.
A service of national importance
Services provided by the GLCC were critical to wartime Britain and the company faced enormous pressure to meet the growing and urgent demand for gas and its by-products.
Despite domestic demand for gas falling due to initiatives such as night-time’s ‘Lights-Out’ campaign, the GLCC still had an important responsibility to keep people’s homes warm and well lit. At the same time, the rising appetite for energy from essential manufacturers and munition factories needed to be fed while temporary quarters and kitchens for the troops, emergency hospitals and convalesce homes sprung up which expanded usage through appliances such as gas and heating stoves. And in order to maintain their supply, it was essential the company carried out repairs from air raid damage. During this time, the cost of labour, shipping and materials of all kinds increased but the GLCC endeavoured to keep the price of energy affordable in order to lessen the burden of war on consumers.
As war progressed, the by-products of gas production became equally important as gas itself. Coal tar increased in demand while production of chemicals for medical purposes and munitions were mandated by government. The company therefore had to carefully balance the manufacture of by-products alongside gas and without this; Britain may have struggled to produce the explosives and power needed for war.
However, meeting war’s energy needs were challenging. Labour was in low supply as many men had exchanged work for active service while coal availability was reduced through difficulties in transportation.
To fulfil wartime demand, the gas industry rose to the occasion and underwent rapid growth and development. The gas industry which comprised of hundreds of suppliers operating independently across the country, became less fragmented and worked in closer collaboration with government for the greater good. Operations became larger and more efficient with mechanical power increasingly introduced for handling fuel, changing retorts and pumping.
To overcome coal shortages, the GLCC bought additional collier ships that secured its own fuel supply. But peaceful passage of colliers gave way to danger as ships became targeted by the German navy. Many vessels therefore succumbed to the perils of war and by 1918, the company was left with only six out of 18 ships bought since 1912. Later in the war, each vessel mounted a gun for defence and the ‘Ardens’ and ‘Horseferry’ crew received special recognition for sinking submarines that had attempted to torpedo them. Captain Skellern of ‘Horseferry’ said, ‘…the whole crew behaved excellently, carrying out orders without the slightest confusion…’6. The ‘Flugens’ also rescued a crew from the torpedoed collier, ‘Deptford’.
Rescue from a torpedoed ship - from the drawing of a GLCC Co-Partner
Sam Laidlaw, CEO, Centrica said, “Our colleagues of the Gas, Light and Coke Company bravely served Britain in the First World War and we would like to mark our sincere gratitude and admiration to them. We are proud that they played a role in this important part of Britain’s history and we recognise the lasting legacy of the war on our country, industry and company”.
Centrica Media Relations: +44 (0)800 107 7014
The Gas, Light and Coke Company was incorporated by Royal Charter in 1812 and became the largest gas company in the world. It was the pioneer company from which the entire industry stemmed and the original company that British Gas descended. Having originally operated in London, the company expanded through a series of mergers and eventually became nationalised under the 1948 Gas Act. It then played a major part within the new North Thames Gas Board which was one of Britain's twelve regional Gas Boards. Following the 1972 Gas Act, the British Gas Corporation was created which merged all of the area boards and later went on to become privatised. Centrica plc was formed in 1997, following a demerger from British Gas plc, which was renamed BG plc at the same time.
Photos courtesy of and thanks to the National Gas Museum and London Metropolitan Archives.
1 Gas, Light and Coke Company, Co-Partners’ Magazine, Vol. IV 1914, p.183 and p.219
2 Ibid, Vol. IX 1919, p. 236
3 Ibid, Vol. IV 1914, p. 180
4Stirling Everard, The History of the Gas, Light and Coke Company 1812-1949, p.305
5 Ibid, Vol. VII 1917, p. 35
6 Ibid, Vol. IX 1919, p.72